Thursday, 30 March 2017

Comics: Vulcan

The format of Vulcan gives it a fair claim to the title of the the greatest British comic of all time, despite being a reprint book. Throughout the sixties especially IPC Fleetway had experimented with fantastical stories more in line with the American industry, albeit the majority employing a peculiarly British slant to the concept. However they never really muscled aside the war and football stories which made up the backbone if the weeklies and gradually moved out of print, defiant innings from 'Robot Archie' (effectively a mascot for Lion) and the Steel Claw (who got a sequel strip, 'Return of the Claw' in Valiant) notwithstanding. It took until the seventies for superheroes to take much of a grip in the UK, when Marvel set up a British division and launched the Mighty World of Marvel, soon followed by Spider-Man Weekly Comics, The Superheroes, The Titans and The Mighty Avengers as the industry briefly boomed. Fleetway took note and responded, merging their library of existing strips into a single fantasy/superhero title - the original Magnificent Seven being 'The Steel Claw', 'The Spider', 'The Trigan Empire', 'Kelly's Eye', 'Mytek the Mighty', 'Saber - King of the Jungle' and 'Robot Archie' - made up the arsenal of Vulcan, edited by Geoff Kemp.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Ironhide


IDW's first attempt at a solo 'spin-off' mini-series Bumblebee suffered from a catastrophic piece of mistiming, choosing a character who was too entrenched in the ongoing plot and at exactly the wrong time. Aside from which it wasn't all that bad; the problem with the Spotlight format had always been that it's fairly easy for any writer worth their salt to focus on one character and give them a bit more focus than might be allowed in a bigger arc, leaving them to come out the other side a richer character. The problem was always the plot - whether to keep it self-contained and end up with something inconsequential or whether to link it into something bigger and just be left with a regular issue with narration boxes.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Comics: Machine Men Mini-Comics

In Australia the Machine Robo line was imported as Machine Men, distributed by Bandai Australia. Like the European version and unlike the American Machine Men line the toys sold well enough that Bandai opted to keep the original branding, even after Gobots took off. Indeed, uniquely the cartoon was even retitled Challenge of the Machine Men to fit in with the toys. To help promote the figures, Bandai Australia did provide catalogues that included short comic strips.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - International Incident


All comic writers have bad ideas. The trick is to realise them as such. The second batch of issues from Mike Costa's unsubtitled ongoing series are an odd bunch. The man has no quality control; not since Bob Budiasnky's second year on the old Marvel title (after which he was obviously trying to get fired) has a writer on Transformers had so many good ideas and so many bad ideas blended with a total inability to realise which is which. The result is bordering on schizophrenia and results in a wildly uneven ride. 

Comic Review: Thunderbolt Jaxon


Wildstorm/DC brought up the rights to the fabled comic wing of IPC/Fleetway in 2005 and promised a selection of new material and reprints (the main hitch in the latter being the absence and poor condition of most physical masters). The opening gambit was Albion, written by Leah Moore and John Reppion and maybe read or spellchecked or vaguely acknowledged by Alan Moore. This was a hugely clumsy attempt to "do a Watchmen" for the characters but while it was nice to see so many characters back in print after decades on the sidelines and it was nowhere near the desecration of the infamous 2000AD Holiday Special it's generally considered impolite to mention the whole thing now. Phase two was a pair of spin-off five part miniseries "from the world of Albion!" largely chosen by casting around for British Invasion creators who had fond memories and asking them if they wanted to write anything. Dave Gibbons answered the call and chose Thunderbolt Jaxon, but there were two major catches - he didn't want to draw it and apparently he didn't want to write about Thunderbolt Jaxon either. Jaxon was never quite in Fleetway's first echelon, mainly being limited to Comet and Knockout rather than the A-list and his big moment might well have been a whiny death in Grant Morrison's Zenith. He was left out of Albion and you get the impression it wasn't so much to keep him free for this mini but because the writers didn't know who he was.

Comic Review: X-Men - X-Tinction Agenda


This is it, the progenitor, the prototype, the big daddy - the first real mutant crossover, the harbinger of "X-Cutioner's Song", "Fatal Attractions", "Age of Apocalypse" and "Onslaught". Marvel's mutant titles had done events before, starting with "Fall of the Mutants" in 1988 and "Inferno" the following year but for those each title had remained relatively self-contained. But 1990's "X-Tinction Agenda" featured a full flow of three issues of the three books with a constantly shifting cast; if you didn't buy all nine issues involved you would not have a clue what was happening and while each title would subtly focus ever so slightly on the home team it was only as part of an ongoing plot.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Last Stand of the Wreckers


It's fair to say that in 2010 people were fed up with IDW. Simon Furman had been given unprecedented control and freedom when the publisher got the licence at the fag-end of 2005 and squandered it with a meandering three-year pile-up of dreadful storylines. Replacing him with Shane McCarthy upset the deluded who felt Furman's work was ever going to go anywhere and then upset the people who were up for a change when his All Hail Megatron arc rapidly went from being stupid fun to stupid stupid, and then successor Mike Costa's tenure got off to a very wobbly start. Something was needed to get the fans onside; the result was the recalling of fan-turned writer-artist Nick Roche, whose debut on Spotlight - Kup had been one of the few universally acclaimed pieces of output since IDW picked the licence up. Roche then roped in fellow Transmasters alumni James Roberts to help out on the script, to focus entirely on the Wreckers.

Toy Review: Grind Rod / Masterpiece Rollbar (KO version)

I've long had a genuine unironic love of the Throttlebots; they were the only team I was able to complete as a child, the toys were good simple fun (and could zip for miles when new) and their profiles had great potential even if they tended to be "Goldbug's mates" in the various media. So the prospect of third party toys for them was salivating but at £60-80 a throw out of my reach as I try not to spend such amounts since becoming a parent. Step in the backbone of my toy collection, Chinese bootleggers (in this case Weijiang) and the inestimable Denyer, who sent me the oversized knock-off version of Grind Rod (i.e. Rollbar, the team's sort-of leader depending on what Goldbug was up to).

Comic Review: Dan Dare


There have been many attempts to bring Dan Dare up to date since the original strip in Eagle retired with its' protagonist in 1967. 2000AD tried a spikier revival when they launched in 1977 by bringing him out of suspended animation but it didn't go down well and the non-traditional elements were cranked back until it disappeared; a revival of Eagle in the eighties saw a more conventional story with the contrivance that this Dare was a descendant; more influenced by war comics this never quite took on either and reverted to a straight sequel featuring the original to no great effect. The next outing was Grant Morrison's heavy-handed but still striking Thatcherism satire Dare in Revolver, after which most of the rights' owners energies were in exploring TV and film in light of the weakness of the British comic industry, resulting in the single-season CGI cartoon Pilot of the Future. In print there was no significant new material until the licence was picked up by the recently-founded comic wing of Virgin Enterprises.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Comic Review: Transformers - Bumblebee

PUBLISHER: IDW (2009-2010)

Post-All Hail Megatron it was clear someone at IDW thought Optimus Prime was mined out and things needed shaking up; the drastically increased profile of Bumblebee after two successful films made him an ideal candidate to take over the central focus and try and claw back some readers. The problem was Bumblebee had after a few initial appearances been largely neglected by both Simon Furman and Shane McCarthy, both of whom who had stuck to the late-Marvel-era characterisation of "yeah he's not as small and useless as he was but actually he's still small and useless in the grand scheme of things but just quieter and in it less". So some work had to be done and one of these decisions was to run a four-part mini-series alongside the new ongoing to beef up his case. Unfortunately IDW seems to have neglected to tell the two titles' respective creative teams until some way down the line.

Comic Review: Robo Machine featuring the Gobots Annual 1986


As touched upon elsewhere the various licences associated with the Gobots line were a mess and this was evident in few places that got the line more than the UK. In Britain the Machine Robo toys had been launched as Robo Machine around the same time as the short-lived American Machine Men line was on the shelves and by Bandai's European unit. When Tonka bought up the rights for the United States they didn't want them elsewhere and Bandai continued to distribute Robo Machine in Europe with moderate success. However, as Transformers arrived and Tonka's Gobots took off Bandai quickly realised that in the West being transforming vehicles wasn't as good as transforming vehicles that also had names and abilities and began applying the Gobots names to the figures (with the occasional change) while retaining the Robo Machine branding. Still with me?

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Comic Review: Union Jack - London Falling


Union Jack's first mini had somehow been released in 1998 and very welcome it was, with an added round of surprise coming from Ben Raab actually putting in a good shift on the script despite his form. However, after those three issues it was back to jobbing cameos for Joe Chapman (though an unsuccessful pitch would lead to Paul Grist's superb Jack Staff) until he turned up in as one of Allan Jacobsen's New Invaders alongside other long-established but semi-obscure characters such as US Agent, the original Human Torch and the Thin Man. While this only lasted nine issues it presumably put this four-issue series on the table to give the character another try-out.

Comic Review: Transformers - For All Mankind

PUBLISHER: IDW (2009-2010)

This is it, the most innovative and crucial piece of Transformers fiction since Bill Mantlo and Ralph Macchio sent that stuff about naturally occurring gears and pulleys creating sentient life off to the printers in 1984. Since then the story of the Transformers has been dominated above all by one thing - the civil war between the Autobots and the Decepticons. Whole stories have been hung on how perpetual and unavoidable this cycle is, a billion dollar film franchise hinges on the premise that the Decepticons are never quite beaten and naturally having two factions always battling is vital to selling toys, so it's never going to go away. Apart from here, where it does.

Comic Review: The Avengers - Under Siege


Marvel in the mid-1980s was not an innovative place, especially in the main titles where the status quo tended to be maintained. The Avengers had a constantly shifting roster but nothing ever really happened to the team exactly; against this backdrop the group of issues that make up the Under Siege TPB are quite innovative, dealing with a concerted attempt to destroy the team.

Comic Review: Spider-Man's Tangled Web, Volume 1


Spider-Man's Tangled Web was another part of Joe Quesada's attempt to court trendy, groovy writers from the likes of Vertigo to improve Marvel's flagging street cred, the idea being to make short anthology-style stories for the long-running character with a less conventional outlook. The creators wouldn't be bound by long runs and thus able to keep up their day jobs while the stories themselves wouldn't affect the more conventional adventures Spidey was still having in his other titles. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume Two

PUBLISHER: MARVEL UK (1989-1990), MARVEL (1991, 1993)

The second volume of Death's Head reprints basically plot an ongoing attempt to keep the character alive, a rag-tag punch of crossovers and guest appearances as all involved defiantly refuse to give up on the concept while continuing to unwittingly dilute it. Since landing his own ongoing series the capitalist killer had been calmed down considerably into a Saturday morning cartoon - you remember how in that nineties X-Men show where Wolverine would always be snarling about wanting to hack people up  but would always listen to Cyclops this time bub or someone would get lucky this time bub and those claws would only be used on robots and electric fences and whatever? That's solo series Death's Head - make an exception this time, yes? Hope heroics are not catching, yes? Let you live this time, yes? As such a series of guest appearances where he can't very well go around killing other established characters are hardly promising.

First on the table are the last three issues of his solo book, pinwheeling towards cancellation as readers got bored in their droves. The first actually sees the first run-out for the character not under the pen of Simon Furman; instead Steve Parkhouse gets the job, possibly because of his familiarity with guest star the Doctor. In fact, once you throw in Dogbolter hiring Death's Head to nobble the Doc and steal the TARDIS it feels more like a Doctor Who comic with Death's Head in. Death's Head claims his first name is Death and calls a robot 'son', which says a lot for Parkhouse's handle on the character. He's given a time machine jetpack thing and sent off to find the Doctor's not being written very impressively either, his combination of skills and interests leading him to opt to play a jester in a pantomime, literally. His comic was full of shit like that, though it rapidly turns into an escalating contest of crapness - Death's Head gets embarrassed busting into a ladies' changing room, the Doctor escapes him with the help of a bloke called Dave who lets him share a pantomime horse costume. I'm not sure if Parkhouse just hates the seventh Doctor and Death's Head or just the reader. Naturally Dogbolter tries to double-cross them with a bomb (the story is called "Time Bomb" so no points for rumbling that little twist before it thuds in two-thirds of the way through the issue) and the pair work together - naturally with Death's Head resisting the chance to get even with the Doctor and the Doctor handily dumping him on top of Four Freedoms Plaza. It might be the worst Death's Head comic ever but then there's a way to go yet.

The desperation continues in the ninth issue of Death's Head then as it's time for a crossover with the first dysfunctional family of comics. The good news, much needed after Art Wetherell's efforts on the last issue is that this one has an artist - with Dragon's Claws cancelled Geoff Senior is free. The finest of Marvel UK's cadre never really made it far beyond Transformers but really his dynamism here shows that it was the industry's loss as his geometric style is a great fit; his Thing and Mr Fantastic especially are superb. Furman's back on scripting duties and while that means less humiliation for everyone he can't come up with a better plot than "everyone fights until a common enemy comes along". This time it's the Baxter Building's security system that brings along the "we'll finish this when we're all safe by actually we won't and Ben's not going to smash Death's Head's face in and neither is Death's Head going to shoot Ben because he needs a time machine and that's the only reason he saves Franklin, yes? Some good dialogue and the aforementioned incredible art helps but it's basically exactly the same plot as every other crossover the character's in, a series of excuses for the character not to actually kill anyone.

More of the same follows when the time machine - thanks to last-minute tampering by Reed - sends him to 2020, where he gets embroiled in a scuffle with Arno Stark, the Iron Man of 2020 who - as discussed here - had a sizable UK following for weird reasons. The plot is so close to the previous issue it's amazing even Furman - the man who wrote Maximum Dinobots - has the gall to be so blatantly repetitive. Fight, fight, realise common enemy, sort common enemy out, bedgrudging respect, no-one dies, no imagination was harmed in the making of this comic. A slight twist comes when cascading sales led to the series ending, meaning a last-minute arrival for Spratt and Bigshot (from the first volume) to try and get the character to something approaching status quo ahead of the axe.

While Death's Head had died a death comics themselves were booming post-Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, which opened up an adult market. Marvel blamed the failure of Dragons' Claws and Death's Head on the book's US format being lost on British shelves (no, seriously) and, eyeing the success of the seminal Deadline and Fleetway's similar Crisis opted to make the character part of their own planned large-format grown up comic Strip. Like the others it mixed the serial anthology format that continued to dominate the weird UK market with stories for grown-ups; initially it featured the likes of Marshal Law and The Man from Cancer but midway through the run with the title dying (sensing a theme here?) and decided to up the ante by bringing back some better-known names, with Death's Head joining up in #13 (the Punisher would also sign up soon afterwards).

The result was "The Body in Question", a respectable return to form tying up some loose ends from the ongoing (including Spratt and Big Shot crashing in on Death's Head in 2020 and the teased stuff about Death's Head's apparent wife looking for him in 8162) and then exploring the character's origins. It's a little darker than the previous material both in that they actually let him kill someone without diffusing it with comedy and in the introspective nature; it might just be the best post-Transformers script the character's had, certainly. Best of all is the format, with all sixty pages of the serial beautifully drawn by Senior and with painted colours too.

Around this time the character made his debut in an American Marvel comic for the first time (his solo series had been released in the USA as an import but actual distribution was sketchy) in Fantastic Four #338, written and drawn by Walter Simonson. I'm sure Walt did do some good comics but everything of his I've read recently has been garbage and it might be that I'm thinking of Louise Simonson. Fair play though the art is striking but the issue is part of some Kang-related time travel madness that's already trying to fit Iron Man and Thor (because Simonson) into things so Death's Head's appearance as an agent of the Time Variance Authority isn't hugely substantial, though Simonson has a fair handle on his dialogue and he's no worse than he was in much of his solo series but it's not the character's finest moment either. Even more inessential is a third run-in with the Doctor at a birthday party in which Death's Head cameos in about three frames; you can admire the editor's exhaustive approach but the truth is the strip is as much about Captain Britain as it is about Death's Head.

Furman had by now crossed the Atlantic for most of his work and with Transformers clearly on the way to the knacker's yard was getting odd bits on other titles as well. Among these was a fill-in stint on the aggressively quirky Sensational She-Hulk. The first issue involves a plot where Jen ends up with a valuable vase and a local kingpin hires a hitman to - chortle - smash it rather than kill her. I know, it's zany. Such a remit brings out various quirky Z-listers like Plant-Man, the Whirlwind and Death's Head, handily zapped to the present day Marvel universe after his run-in with the Fantastic Four. Naturally after an initial fight they end up working together against the blah blah fucking blah. Released at the same time was a short, simple and none too original strip in Marvel Comics Presents depicting Death's Head on the run from a vengeful fellow freelance peacekeeping agent which touched on the same stuff as the first issue of his own series, clearly intended to strike a chord with American audiences. Seeing as this effectively ended the original Death's Head as a live character it can be considered to have failed.

Marvel UK, spearheaded by Paul Neary, however weren't giving up and despite their series of failures launched a whole line of new books in the US format with a full American distribution operation. The result was a plethora of sub-Image crap like Killpower & Motormouth and Warheads the character of Death's Head got killed off and given a radical overhaul as the even more generic Death's Head II. This was without the consent or involvement of Furman and ironically briefly found commercial success (partly due to an X-Men crossover in the early issues) before the whole idiotic idea collapsed in on itself to the extent that Marvel UK found effectively end when the surviving parts were sold to Panini. No material from this incarnation is included in the trade, thankfully, but this is the context for the book's endcap.

Largely left out of the whole Marvel UK disaster, Furman was in the process of prepping for Transformers Generation 2 and killing off Alpha Flight while also doing a couple of fill-ins on What If...?. For the third of his issues (#54) he reversed the events of the Death's Head II limited series - Death's Head survives his run-in with Minion and instead Reed Richards is killed. Minion is then taken over by Baron Strucker and becomes Charnal; the thing's inventor Carol Necker then hires Death's Head to take him down. Temporal antics and emotional blackmail lead to the rounding up of the remaining members of the Fantastic Four plus allies Namor, Luke Cage, Captain America and War Machine. The result is typical of the title with much preposterous death (Namor just pipping Rhodey to the title of most hilarious) but does see a decent take on Death's Head, arguably one that could never have worked in the real Marvel universe. Though to be fair one that could have worked in the UK subsection if Furman could ever actually kill anyone off.

It makes for a solid ending however and along with "The Body in Question" (probably the essential solo Death's Head comic) are worth reading. As for the rest, the initial Fantastic Four crossover and the Iron Man 2020 issues are workable but the rest is a mess; the problem with a comprehensive round-up like this is that Death's Head seems to be endlessly introduced to a reader who's halfway through a book about the guy while Furman's repetitive structure really does wear thin. Like the first collection it's as good a way as any of rounding up the character's adventures but the truth is the concept never received the storylines to bring it to fruition.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Comic Review: Iron Man 2020

PUBLISHER: MARVEL (1984-1986), MARVEL UK (1989), MARVEL (1993-1994, 2008-2009)

Got to love a rogue obscure character getting a trade. The most fun thing about Iron Man 2020 (the hope of this blog is to avoid the obvious, so don't expect much bantz about how this will be happening in three years time) is that somehow, somehow, despite being popular with fans the character's still been sparsely used. To fill this trade whichever magnificent sod decided to run this collection has had to chase through issues of Machine Man, Spider-Man annuals, a nineties one-shot no-one remembers and the Astonishing Tales webcomic and even then rope in a storyline from What If. This is some editor's labour of love and I salute them. Quite what makes Arno Stark so appealing is a difficult thing to put the finger on; he's sort-of a bad version of relative (their exact relation is fuzzy, not least as 2020 started looking like a perfectly viable date for Iron Man to still be running) Tony Stark but not in a particularly evil way exactly, he's just a mercenary and a corporate bastard. Sort of what Tony Stark would actually be like in the real world, without telegraphed alcoholism or Skrull replacements or anything to offer a bailout. 

The character debuted in a comic which isn't even really about him, Tom DeFalco's reworking of Machine Man. Arno shows up in the first issue briefly then armoured up at the end of the second before being the antagonist (at the behest of Sunset Bain) in the last couple of issues but it's not a problem because the mini-series itself is excellent, a much-underrated gem of the era for Marvel. Machine Man had been around for years as a crap Silver Age idea that the company tried to push for a couple of years before giving up on; here he's awoken in a dystopia proto-cyberpunk 2020 by the Midnight Wreckers, a group of rogue robot salvage outlaws making a credit or two against the oppressive corporate might of Baintronics. The 2000AD-tinged world was met with rounded characterisation and a revitalised Machine Man, whose push for his own rights as a sentient being were better framed than in the cheesy original. The story, ably illustrated by Herb Trimpe & Barry Windsor-Smith, might just be DeFalco's crowning moment and it's fantastic how fresh the universe feels. Against all this is Arno, whose arrogance and disdain leads to an epic defeat. It's not an auspicious debut in those terms but the character is interesting just as everyone else in the series is, fully rounded and with well-mapped motivations. Incredibly the series was barely followed up on, which perhaps adds to its' special feeling.

The arrogance and bullheadedness of Arno is brought into full force for his second appearance, as a guest villain in the 1986 Amazing Spider-Man Annual. The story was fairly simple as Stark travelled back in time to try and prevent the future destruction of Stark Industries (and the death of his wife and child) at the hands of a terrorist with one of his own advanced nukes to try and stop the bomber in his youth. Spider-Man spots the aforementioned attempts and Arno's mix of clumsy, unilateral methods lead to a misunderstanding, a battle and a you-guessed-it ending. What's fascinating is the amount of focus given to Arno; the symbiote-suited Spider-Man doesn't appear until the 16th page and even then isn't given much more to do than to react to the antagonist. The whole drive is from the Iron Man end even if it's Spider-Man's comic and era and if this wasn't part of a push for some sort of Iron Man 2020 solo series I'll eat three of my fingers. The result is further rounding out of a flawed but more or less decent man who lets his ambition and stubborn inability to explain himself to anyone get the better of him and it makes for a rather good story, livened up by a solid cross-town brawl.

The Machine Man mini had been ran as a back-up strip in Marvel UK's Transformers and, the British people being weird from even a young age, gave Arno such a cult following that the Spider-Man appearance was also printed in the UK when things like Armor Wars weren't. As such he was roped in for the final issue of the British arm's Death's Head series, written by Simon Furman and drawn by Bryan Hitch. The titular mechanoid and poor old Arno are set up by a thrill-seeking ultra-powerful society named the Dicemen to fight for entertainment though naturally after a bit of a dust-up they both realise they've been had and go out for vengeance. Arno actually comes out of the whole thing better than the star of the comic and it's another fun little stop on his weird ride.

A couple of cameos aside though he then spent another few years out of print before inexplicably surfacing in 1994 in his own 64-page graphic novel. No-one knows why. It's possible it was some old pitch or plan from the eighties someone turned up in a draw or something but I've just made that up so I'd be surprised. The prestige format one-shot was written by Walt Simonson and Bob Wiacek and concerns Arno being hired to rescue a businessman's hostage; the idea of the guy getting his own story with his own name up there on the cover is intoxicating but alas Simonson is as much of a dullard as ever and really you're reading any old Iron Man filler story set slightly in the future; the last-page revelation that an aged Tony is actually overseeing Arno's new career as a boring traditional hero rubber-stamps the character decay.

The one-shot went down so well that Arno disappeared for another decade or so before resurfacing in Marvel's webcomic revival of Astonishing Tales (later being selected for the print version as well). The writer was webcomic pioneer Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, courted by Marvel to give the format some cachet; considering he's British it's not too much of a reach to imagine the choice of character was influenced by those Transformers reprints once again. Whatever the reason Arno's back in proper morally questionable form fighting sky pirates and the result is good fun for the most part, though I'm not sure about Lou Kang's hunched up armour redesign (even if he's not dumb enough to remove the bevelled shoulders).

Finally to top things off there's a What If, or at least a bit of one. The issue, #53 from 1993, was a triple-header and it looks like being a deadline issue; all three were written by Furman and each featured a different crap artist. For the Iron Man 2020 segment it's Manny Galan, long known as a bit of a joke for his work on Transformers - Generation 2, where he worked like a maniac to pull back the title's backlog while trying to ape Derek Yaniger's style. Those were obviously circumstances that brought out the best in him as here his work looks like it's out of a colouring book, and not a particularly great one either, probably a Chinese bootleg with Unkillable Steel Fellow daubed on the front. It poises the question of what would have happened if Arno had been left in the present after his run-in with Spider-Man; it turns out he would have taken advantage of Tony Stark's disappearance a few years down the line, killed Jim Rhodes (who really should never do What Ifs as he dies ridiculously easily) and then got put in his place by Tony almost immediately before going on to be an abusive father who would vaguely do some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy thing because something similar happened in the Spider-Man comic and Furman thinks it's clever but doesn't really understand.

So yeah, it's a collection of highs and lows as such an eclectic grab-bag of sources would suggest but really the Machine Man story alone is worth the price, with the Spider-Man and Death's Head issues worthy inclusions as well. The less said about Simonson's effort the better but I suppose it being here means you're less likely to get fascinated by the better parts and go and spend money on the thing like a sucker. No bitterness. The revival feels odd in there with its' digital colouring but is a harmless little oddity while the presence of the What If is not only a testament to completism but means if you're reading the book in the bathroom there's some emergency toilet paper on hand. The character was more recently revived for Kang's Chronos Corps, so this makes a solid primer.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Comic Review: Death's Head, Volume One


Death's Head's history is intimately known to those who know and an obscurity to those who didn't. He was born out of one of Marvel UK's regular disastrous attempts to become a proper comic publisher rather than a repackager and licence handler; designed by Geoff Senior as a one-off infodump character for the weekly Transformers comic that was earning the arm's bread and butter, Simon Furman - the Tommy Wiseau of the British operation - decreed it to be of considerable potential. Death's Head was promoted to a full supporting role in the resulting story, getting to battle Galvatron, but not before a one-page strip ("High Noon Tex", included in this collection) was drawn by a pubescent Bryan Hitch and got into print in various publications to secure the copyright with Marvel rather than Transformers owners Hasbro. After his debut (which involved killing beloved child assocation character Bumblebee as soon as he materialised in the 20th century) the character was recalled for "Headhunt", where he stalked Rodimus Prime back in the Transformers' future timeline, with a third appearance in "Legacy of Unicron" seeing him shift firmly towards the role of anti-hero before being time-zapped out of the comic.

The character's fine design, cool array of equipment and memorable speech patterns and aversion to being described as a bounty hunter had made him a solid hit, especially in the eighties when everything was Wolverine this and Punisher that and Batman the other - double-hard bastards who were marginally less brutal than their quarry were the order of the day. Obviously pound signs were lighting up at Marvel UK with Furman clearly picturing Death's Head at the vanguard of a universe of titles likely all written by him in his increasing desperation to get away from writing about toys. The character was then sent on a brief hype tour of Marvel UK's other titles; first stop was in Doctor Who Monthly, then well into morphing from a bad comic to a factual magazine with a bad comic strip in it. "Crossroads in Time" deals with the seventh incarnation of the Doctor sorting out that Death's Head was forty feet tall, something that Death's Head has the good manners to never, ever, ever mention again despite the fact you'd think he'd be pretty pissed at being shrunk to 20% of his original height and then time-travelling him to 8162 and a guest appearance in Dragon's Claws.

The far-flung future setting was a necessary as no-one in the American offices read much of this stuff so setting anything in the present was continuity suicide. Dragon's Claws had ran for a colossal five issues at this point and was the vanguard of Marvel UK's new US-format titles; one of the better Rollerball rip-offs doing the rounds (certainly better than 2000AD's risible Mean Team) the comic benefited from a colourful array of enemies to obscure the generic nature of the team themselves, a conspiracy-laden plot and the always-dynamic pencils of Senior. The resulting guest appearance saw a brief few frames of teaming up before Death's Head was heavily damaged (with a wry nod to Monty Python and the Holy Grail) in time for a rebuild and a new costume for his own monthly.

The actual Death's Head comic gets off to a good start with a firm restating of the character's basic nature - a freelance peacekeeping agent whose only priorities are his bank balance and his self-preservation, who'll kill anyone for the credits without sentiment or scruples. Remember that, because you're about to get some major character decay. The problem is that Marvel UK's target audience were basically the same people who were buying Transformers and a more mature 2000AD-style direction just wasn't possible so about the first thing that comes off are all the edges; by the end of his second issue Death's Head has found numerous contrived reasons to not actually kill guest stars Dragon's Claws (now veterans of a colossal seven issues) and end up on the side of right against Scavenger's old muckers while also gaining a Rick Jones-style sidekick in the form of Spratt. Over the next few issues there's much of the mechanoid doth protest too much about how Death's Head doesn't appreciate Spratt being his partner, how he doesn't care about whether the human lives or dies or whatever but what do you know, the boy wonder's still there helping out and getting begrudging respect.

The third through seventh issues have something of a linking plot with Death's Head still in 8162 (but not crossing the paths of the cancelled Claws again) and coming up against a web of vaguely linked funny bad guys - horse-headed crimelord Dead Cert, diminutive inept hitman Shortfuse, drooling psycho competitor Bigshot, luckless thief Keepsake and his estranged wife Thea and mercenary nutter Mayhem with his hit-squad Sudden Impact. It's colourful and often funny but again often it's a contrived series of jumps to avoid Death's Head kill anyone Furman clearly has bookmarked for future use - however derivative - and to keep Spratt aboard (including his predictable killing of beastie Plaguedog and chameleonic fugitive Photofit). It's around this point that Hitch, already being courted by the American wing of the company, fell off the schedule, Death's Head being made at a time when monthly comics went out every month. The usually decent Lee Sullivan steps in first and proves somewhat miscast, especially with drawing the lead, before Liam Sharp and then John Higgins take a turn before Hitch returned for the seventh issue.

The seventh issue closes the first collection, being the last set entirely in 8162 ahead of some big crossover plans from issue eight onwards. It seems the character was already flagging; Dragon's Claws had been cancelled, an attempt to relaunch Action Force as a monthly had failed while neither Thundercats nor The Real Ghostbusters had really taken off and even the bulwark Transformers had a nervy moment (which ironically would be patched over by Death's Head reprints). The UK market just wasn't healthy enough to support American style comics, especially as imports were becoming cheaper and more widely found in the wake of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. And Death's Head suffers from a muddled pitch anyway; it's too colourful and silly to be of interest to many who read the latter but too dark - at least in its' marketing; unwittingly (hopefully) giving the guy the same name as a Nazi murder squad was not the best idea ever - for the kids, the title fell between two stools. What's collected in this first collection is far from without value as Death's head himself is ceaselessly entertaining but there really is a feeling of a sharp, vibrant character being homogenised at a rapid rate.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Minifigures - Storm (Film Version)

As a character introduced some forty years ago Storm's had a chequered career; ups have included being a black female superhero of considerable standing and minimal stereotyping and long stints as X-Men leader (including some of the finest stories of the eighties); against that there have been some disappointing moments such as a random regression to a child which went on far too long, the indignity of getting dropped down to X-Treme X-Men along with all the other unfashionable Chris Claremont characters and being pensioned off to marry the Black Panther on the grounds that she was African. She's also not had the best time in the films either, where she was initially played by Halle Berry. Despite Berry's standing being (inexplicably) high at the time and for a few years afterwards she never really did much and is mainly remembered for spouting one of the outright worst lines in cinema history courtesy of Joss Whedon. For X-Men - Apocalypse, which I have yet to see (my watchlist is a complicated and masochistic affair) theere is a kernel of hope, however, with the character recast and played by the young Alexandra Shipp, who couldn't really be any worse than poor old Halle.

Apocalypse again received a Lego blackout so as not to dilute the dollars Disney were reaping from Civil War sets but again customisers and bootleggers came to the rescue and have put out most of the main cast. Storm had enjoyed an official Minifigure previously in a retro-themed 2014 set that's largely faithful to the seventies look but the updated version is entirely unofficial. But it looks great, based on the excellent look of the Shipp version - but without the teenage thing as all Minifigures generally look roughly the same age. It's always a good sign when Storm has a mohawk anyway and it's nicely rendered here even if the rest of the costume is nothing like the fantastic eighties New Wave look Ororo had.

It's not uninteresting either, well-rendered in black with silver highlights, it just fits into the whole problem with the Fox X-Men series of most of the costumes being a bit similar without anyone having the guts to go for the full-on uniforms seen early in the title's life or under Grant Morrison. The permanent snarl is also perhaps a bit much but sadly there are very few black female characters with Minifigures to do a headswap with. Overall though it's an interesting figure for the visual variety of the punky head on a female character compared to all the traditional shoulder-length styles and a well-rendered version of the live action look.

Comic Review: City of Silence


Marvel never really knew what to do with Warren Ellis when he arrived with them in the mid-nineties; someone clearly recognised his talent but also his incompatibility with much of the mainstream of the company's work. Thus he was given considerable freedom but only really in areas he couldn't create a huge amount of impact, notably being given the job of winding down the commercially unsuccessful 2099 universe and writing nihilistic Marvels flipside Ruins. It's probably around this time he and Gary Erskine (fairly fresh over the Atlantic after Knights of Pendragon and Warheads) originated Silencers for Epic, Marvel's subline for oddball projects that allowed creator-owned works but the label was in poor health, only really still existing to complete the Akira reprint (which, coincidentally, featured an additional work by Ellis in its' closing issue), and the work was never released.

Ellis retained copyright and the comic was eventually put out in 2000 as City of Silence when The Authority and Planetary were in full swing, with Gary Erskine (the planned original penciller) working on it. That the comic was out five years late sadly shows, though that's perhaps a compliment to Ellis' rapid evolution from a pretty decent and slightly weird British invasion writer to one of the finest in the industry. Some of the ideas for Silencers were clearly recycled and greatly refined into Transmetropolitan in terms of a nightmarish totalitarian future city that runs on arcane concepts and general sleaze, but it's City of Silence that comes off as the knock-off.

Not that it really deserves much better; the trio of Silencers (a sort of secret police-cum-vigilantes) are Frost, Litany and Gitane and all are basically cool freaks, never remotely bothered by any sort of threat, above it all and full of bitter quips. A languid, hedonistic trio with no real weaknesses make for dull company and a bare minimum of excitement as they just kill other weirdos left, right and centre. The three issues are riddled with squeamish, modish concepts like high-tech snuff porn trading and the like which all sounds curiously twee and strangely incontinent, just weird word combinations spat out by characters to try and make the reader squirm. Erskine's art is arguably more successful in this regard, and not just that he makes everyone all grimacing and lined permanently (Gitane has facial scars and I didn't even notice on the first read); his detailed work on the strange world hits the right note of discomfort and provides most of the successful intentional humour and queasiness.

It's possible the series is meant to be a send-up to some degree of future shock stories but if it is it falls largely flat; the absurdity isn't absurd enough and Ellis can write much funnier send-ups than this anyway. This feels like it's running on shock value and as an Epic comic in 1995 from the writer of Excalibur it probably would have caused a couple of ripples; now, though, it's one of the more minor works of a fine career and not really worth tracking down.

Comic Review: Longshot


One of my favourite runs of X-Men was the stint in the eighties where Chris Claremont relocated the team to a ranch in Australia. Not only did this give it a fresh feel but there was also a great roster - peak Storm with her mohawk fresh from knocking the crap out of Cyclops, Wolverine and Rogue before overexposure, the original non-tarty version of Psylocke, Colossus, Havok, Dazzler and Longshot. It was all very eighties, best epitomised by Longshot, who was brilliant and likable but remains very much a product of his time. 

His genesis came shortly before he joined up with the team. Marvel were going through one of their periodic pushes for fresh talent and characters (this being the era of the ill-fated New Universe) in the mid-eighties and this unearthed Ann Nocenti, a kind of talented version of Cat Yronwoode who had already attracted attention for offing Jessica Drew on a brief run on the closing issues of the already doomed Spider-Woman and would later go on to a bleak, responsible but rather good residency on Daredevil. Between that she devised a character for the eighties to help update Marvel and then-novice Art Adams was paired up to create the alien Longshot. The resulting character was striking for his Bowie influenced mullet and actual proper utility storage, including a near omnipresent satchel and grappling hook not to mention a bandoleer of throwing knives at a time when comic characters generally produced such accouterments from thin air. Definitely a character for the eighties and his look would go on to influence the likes of Cable and everything else terrible in the early nineties.

The actual introductory story for the character drops the reader in the deep end, the character arriving in our world with amnesia (which would be something of a motif for the guy), unaware of his name, powers or even physiology. In typical Nocenti style the alien-ness of it all is doubled by Earth being a pretty weird place, full of survivalist nuts, crazed film directors and suicidal husbands. Things gradually unfold over the six issues, which also introduce Mojo, Spiral (whose design takes some time to settle down), Ma'gog and Gog, not to mention Ricochet Rita, a human stunt-woman who serves as a love interest at this stage. Nocenti's script varies between richly detailed (with a great many allusions outside the usual purview of the era) to flowery and overcooked; her ever-present social commentary is just as variable, sometimes wry and witty and others overbearing and clumsy. The brilliance of Art Adams blends perfectly with this strange world, though sadly one of the few occasions the man was able to actually draw an entire series suffers from lots of ugly block colouring.

Most of the characters are vividly drawn, notably the conspiracy theorist Eliot who initially allies with Longshot, Rita and urban failure Theo; fun cameos from both She-Hulk and Spider-Man also hit the spot as does a more substantial appearance by Doctor Strange. The long game approach does mean by the final issue the reader has a fairly good handle on the amiable title character too while both Mojo and Spiral flesh out nicely, though some of the rest of the supporting cast are neither here nor there and there's a stomach-turning bunch of kids lobbed in.

Really though the big problem is a treacle pace and the six issues really do drag in places; when I found out the final one was double length (having previously only read a couple of odd parts) my heart genuinely sank. It is an unusual complaint from the era to go with the unusual character but really with so little information about basically anyone in the comic it's more frustrating than anything. A planned sequel series never happened and Longshot would next pop up in the X-Men a few months later, once again without his memory. 

After a few years the team went through the Siege Perilous for a massive shake-up; Storm would be regressed to a child, Psylocke would turn up as an Asian ninja while Havok and Dazzler lost their memories. Longshot came off worse still by disappearing entirely and would only come back for the occasional Mojoverse crossover as it became harder to fit him into the modern books, the ultimate legacy of designing a character for the eighties being that once they were over he looked rather silly.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Comic Review: Agents of Atlas


The best thing about being a comics reader with a penchant for the obscure is that there are comic writers out there with a penchant for the obscure too. A good example of this is the fantastically geeky Agents of Atlas. The story of this comic actually goes back some way to Atlas Comics, basically the company that would become Marvel after starting out as Timely. They published a few superhero comics including Marvel Boy and a few weird science anthologies, such as Marvel Mystery Comics, Men's Adventures and Menace, not to mention crime titles such as the Yellow Claw. These featured a slew of original characters and when Marvel began publishing and initiated the Silver Age Stan Lee's constant desire to reuse existing ideas saw most pulled into current titles as guest characters; Marvel Boy went insane and attacked the Fantastic Four as the Crusader before dying, eventually bequeathing his bands to Quasar; secret agent Jimmy Woo and arch-rival the Yellow Claw featured in several SHIELD stories; Gorilla-Man appeared in a few issues of Defenders while Namora appeared in cousin Namor's titles occasionally before being killed off.

The group really caught modern imagination when they were featured in What If...? #9 as an alternate version of the Avengers if the team had formed in the fifties, with Marvel Boy, Gorilla Man, M11 the Human Robot and Venus recruited by Woo to rescue President Eisenhower from the Yellow Claw. Also featured in the line-up was the 3D Man, a hero invented recently by Roy Thomas whose adventures were merely set in the fifties while the story featured cameos from Jann of the Jungle, Namora and a few villains of the Atlas era. Marvel did a lot of that sort of thing in the seventies, trying to patch their Golden Age and Silver Age material together; Thomas' own Invaders was joined by several stories sorting out who exactly had been Captain America if Steve Rogers had been frozen in ice since World War II, stuff like that. The fifties Avengers' sole appearance ended with the team disbanding as the world wasn't ready for them and the story was left hanging in terms of canonicity. They had made an impression on fans and when that most fannish of books, Kurt Busiek's shamelessly nerdy Avengers Forever, arrived it picked up on the team and firmly established the story as being from an alternate reality, Busiek's clear enjoyment not being enough to outweigh his masochistic need to bring neatness to the Avengers history.

Fast-forward eight years and Jeff Parker was having none of that, deciding to put the band back together. Jimmy Woo has been put in a coma after leading a rogue mission while working for SHIELD so Gorilla-Man, still working for SHIELD himself, rounds up Marvel Boy (now more often known as the Uranian or simply Bob, the version killed fighting the Fantastic Four being revealed to be someone else), M-11 and Venus. It's established that they did work together as a team in the fifties but not as the Avengers with the implication being a nearly-identical version of the events in the What If... did happen in the main Marvel Universe. Bob is able to revive Woo but only as his fifties self while Namora's death is also undone and she joins them as they try to foil the Yellow Claw plot Woo was investigating while being pursued by SHIELD.

The result is a joy; Parker never goes for the cheap shot of ridiculing the fifties origins of the group but doesn't simply clone the Watchmen approach either. Ken Hale, the Human Gorilla, is a grumpy sod much in the vein of the Thing, Bob has been physically altered by a Venusian hive organism, M-11 is passively inscrutable throughout, Venus finds out her true origin and Namora has to deal with no-one apparently bothering to check if she was alive for decades but it's all done in a warm, natural fashion. They all feel like characters rather than puppets in a retcon rampage while the actual main storyline is rather more rich and intelligent than the use of the Atlas Corporation as an enemy would suggest. The ending especially is fantastic.

Parker's clear passion is matched by Leonard Kirk's lush art which has the same respectful tone - characters are updated and integrated artistically but never overhauled needlessly or cut off from their fifties roots. While all of this is going on the series finds a good balance of telling an interesting story and filling new readers in as to who exactly these guys are with about as much finesse as is reasonable to ask, meaning an affinity for forgotten fifties superheroes is not necessary to enjoy. Overall an excellent little series.

Comic Review: The Rocketeer - Cliff's New York Adventure

PUBLISHER: COMICO (1988-1989), DARK HORSE (1995)

In the annals of slowly published comics Dave Stevens' The Rocketeer must hold some sort of record - the original run involving the creator took from 1982 to 1994 to come up with around 100 pages of story and had four different publishers. The strip started as a backup in four Pacific comics in 1982 and then finished off for Eclipse in 1985, the latter publishing the Rocketeer Album which collected the work to date. This ended with Cliff Secord chasing Betty across America before she went overseas with her shifty model agency photographer. The story started up again with The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine for Comico in 1988 but only two issues appeared before they hit severe financial trouble and the arc wasn't finished until Dark Horse picked up the licence in 1995 and publsihed the third issue (finished with help from all-star friends including Art Adams), also bundling the whole second story into a trade. In the meantime the property had also been turned into a film, a much-underrated different but faithful adaptation helmed by Joe Johnson for Disney. A planned series featuring other artists and writers for Dark Horse never materialised (though there was a comic adaptation of the film) and it would take until 2011, three years after Stevens' premature death from leukaemia with his iron-hard principles still intact.

The second loose bunch of stories in the New York Adventure follow much the same template as the first, being highly episodic as part of Stevens' nod towards the world of pulps and movie serials. Cliff meets up with a friend in the form of George "Goose" Gander, based on autogiro pioneer George Townson, who got a feature article in the original issue, and goes to get Betty (still modelled blatantly on Bettie Page and still subject to unnecessary but lush pin-up style poses at random intervals) from the clutches of thinly-veiled pornographer Marco Marconi. The resulting scuffle in a high-end nightclub was clearly influential on the similar scene in the film but as ever compared to Billy Campbell's clean-cut hero we're reminded that the comic version of Cliff Secord is a chippy little sod and he promptly stomps off after winning his girl back. He also turns down a job offer from the mysterious Jonas; just as the first volume featured a royalty-free appearance by Doc Savage the second has Lamont Cranston thrown in under a cover name.

Cliff eventually does agree to work for the Shadow, who needs the use of Goose's autogiro and the Rocketeer to investigate something. This leads to a dippy plot line where Secord is revealed to have previously worked as part of a circus troupe that are being wiped out; only he and illusionist Orsino have survived, the culprit being strongman Lothar. The latter is modelled on Rondo Hatton and was later included in the film as a henchman for the main villain. Out for revenge as he blames the rest of the troupe for the death of midget lady-love Tina in a stunt gone wrong. Again Cliff doesn't really come out of the whole saga looking like a particularly nice chap; Tina's unrequited feelings for him led her to take his place in the underwater stunt while Secord was giving some to another member of the group and he doesn't even seem to feel particularly bad. But then part of the fun of the Rocketeer comics are that Secord's a bit of a prick.

The serial ends with Cliff tidying up the Lothar business and heading back towards the Bulldog Cafe, where Bettie is waiting for him. We don't actually get to see the pair reunited (though Peevey gets an appearance), which leaves things nice and open, in that it's easy to imagine Cliff arriving and calling her a massive bitch before picking a fight with three other people. He really is that much of a chippy sod. Honestly, I don't think I've read a comic with an angrier lead; at least the Punisher and Wolverine have some sort of motivation, Cliff just seems to be out to yell at anyone he comes across. He could start a fight in an empty room and would lose as well. It should make him unsympathetic but really there's a strangely compelling feeling to keep reading and see just how he's going to screw things up.

The thing is that not a huge amount actually happens; for all the pinup posters of the Rocketeer punching Nazis and what have you the comic's about Cliff chasing after his girlfriend, getting involved in a faintly implausible whodunnit that's entirely his fault and then going back home where his white-hot girlfriend is somehow waiting for him. Jasper's Warp it is not. But then that's part of the fun and what really shines through is Stevens' love for the universe; he's almost not got time for much Rocketeer stuff with all the fun he's having drawing prewar New York or squeezing cultural references in. Somehow he makes this all seem much more fantastic than it actually is, a genuine auteur at work unbound by modern conventions, he probably hadn't ever read a comic made after about 1942. Flawed but somehow still fun.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Comic Review: Crimson Dynamo

PUBLISHER: EPIC, 2003-2004

One of Marvel's less successful ventures under Joe Quesada was an attempt to revive the Epic label, which had been founded in the eighties to allow the company to publish more adult, creator-owned properties without bringing about the censure of the Comic Code Authority or sullying their wholesome image. Triumphs of the original included the translated colour version of Akira, Groo the Wanderer, Stan Lee and Moebius collaborating on the Silver Surfer graphic novel Parable and Atomic Age. Less successful were frequent works featuring scantily-clad female warriors and uninspired literary adaptations like Clive Barker rubbish and William Shatner's Tek Wars. The revival however was only really noted for two things - Mark Millar's misjudged teen romance Trouble, a story about apparent revelations for Spider-Man's parentage that was rendered totally pointless by not being in the main continuity anyway, and for lasting less than a year after drowning in creator submissions.

Very little made it to completion but one book that did was a six-issue Crimson Dynamo mini-series by superfan John Jackson Miller, part of the 2003 Epic remit being to find new creative blood by letting some fresh names play with minor characters from the Marvel Universe. The Crimson Dynamo had of course long been the Soviet counter to Iron Man, a government-sponsored battle suit which had a series of pilots. Miller choses however to take the story from the more sympathetic first version, Anton Vanko, who defected to the USA and was then killed by assassins back when Iron Man was still sharing Tales of Suspense with Captain America. 

The story is set in the present and focuses on Gennady Gavrilov, a teenage slacker who discovers the helmet to a prototype Mark 2 version of Vanko's original Crimson Dynamo armour, unwittingly causing he rest of the armour to reactivate and begin rampaging towards him from its' distant storage. Gennady unwittingly aids the suit in the belief he's playing a computer game when actually he's controlling the suit's rampage through a post-USSR Russian army trying to prevent the thing getting to Moscow (where Gennady lives). He's actually an amiable enough lead with enough charm to bring off the story.

The problem is there's just not enough plot to fill six issues. Gennady is under pressure from his parents and school for being smart but lazy and a little bit of a criminal, has an internet relationship with an American girl, has an American weapons inspector fighting his corner and a French merc named Devereaux also after the armour on his case but it just doesn't make for anything particularly exciting, with many of the dynamics quickly solidifying and turning into repetition. You can't help but feel a more experienced writer would have compressed a lot of it into about half the number of issues. And the reader is in for disappointment if they're after actually seeing Gennady don the Crimson Dynamo armour as it only happens in the closing stages of the sixth and final issue, while an Iron Man cameo happens entirely by radio link with Tony Stark all but admitting that he's not interested enough to actually head over and help.  
On the plus side most of the characters are interesting enough even if they don't evolve much while there's what seems to be a well-researched look at life in post-USSR Russia, a chaotic and corrupt place where the old days aren't missed universally. Overall though it's an inconsequential if amiable little side strand of the universe featuring an incarnation of the Dynamo that never really went anywhere.